Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Queen Anne's Lace - a legend of fine needlework
This an equally exciting time to enjoy wildflowers (equal to the spring that is, when the barren woodland floor erupts with flowers of most every color and shape imaginable in the plant world of the Northeast). It has taken me nearly a lifetime of being satisfied with what springtime offers to look closer at what nature provides — free of tilling, planting, fertilizing, watering and, of course, weeding. This brings me to the noun "weed" and the verb "weeding." These are overused, and often misunderstood. For me and many flower fanciers, master gardeners, botanists, ecologists and so on, "a weed is simply a plant whose value has yet to be discovered," or even more simply "a plant out of place." And Queen Anne's lace is only a weed if you don't appreciate having it in your garden.
In the days of Queen Anne (1702 to 1714), fine needlework was the pastime for those of means or leisure. And, apparently in this Queen's court, she challenged her ladies in waiting to fashion a lace as fine, directing their attention to the wild carrot that today we name after the winner of the challenge, Queen Anne, herself, who secretly took part.
Look very closely at the flower head, or umbel, of one of these flowers at this time of the summer, through October, and you will see that it is composed of many smaller umbels of tiny white flowers. And when they dry up in the autumn, they resemble a bird's nest, or that's what some say, hence the plant is sometimes called "bird's nest." Another name, mostly used by dairy farmers is "devil's plague," as milking cows eating it would give disagreeable tasting milk.
Some believe the wild carrot is an escape or offspring of the cultivated (eating) carrot; others believe just the opposite, while still others believe both are a separate species. I have no opinion. In any case, don't go testing to see if the wild variety is as delicious as garden-fresh or store-bought bright orange pointed at one end produce. It isn't and two members of the genera (of which about 50 genera in the Carrot or Parsnip family) are poisonous.
One way to be sure you are looking at Queen Anne's lace is that the umbels often have a dark purple, or sometimes several dark purple flowers near the center. Please don't ask me why. No one apparently knows exactly, although superstition has it that Queen Anne pricked her finger and a drop of blood stained the lace.
When I taught nature classes at the Berkshire Museum we had a Junior Naturalist Club and members sometimes worked on simple experiments or projects. One was to have several tall glass (today its plastic) soda bottles (20 fluid ounces or less) in which a different food coloring was added. Pick a bunch of Queen Anne's lace flowers with at least 12-inch stems and check in about eight hours. Try it, but look closely to be sure there are no ticks on stems or flower heads before picking.
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